Study: Full Zero Emissions Likely to Elude Future Generations

(CN) – In the future, there will be new technologies that have not been conceived of today, but humans must still step up efforts toward zero-emissions standards or face difficult consequences from climate change, according to a paper by scientists from a variety of fields.

The research paper published Thursday in Science magazine examined the largest contributors to atmospheric carbon, including transportation, construction, and energy producers. But many questions remain unanswered when it comes to nonexistent technologies.

“The specific technologies that will be favored in future marketplaces are largely uncertain, but only a finite number of technology choices exist today for each functional role,” the scientists wrote.

Usually vehicles and the fossil fuels that power them get the most attention when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint. But with all the modern advancements in energy efficiency there are other industries where emissions cannot be reduced, according to the paper’s co-authors including earth system scientist Steven Davis from the University of California, Irvine and Ken Caldeira, senior scientist with the Carnegie Institute Department of Global Ecology.

Costs associated with updating existing industries to be zero-emissions will be one of the largest barriers to overcome, according to the paper.

Technology will play a part in eliminating emissions from services and processes like in the steel industry, but so will coordination between energy and industry sectors.

An effective way to approach this would be to have research and development in technologies and processes that can crack the difficult-to-decarbonize energy services, like steel and cement manufacturing. The two industries account for 1.3 to 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere annually, according to the paper.

Those figures will likely rise in the next several decades as developing countries begin to compete for resources like electricity, which in turn will contribute to carbon output.

Other contributors to the carbon footprint that will not have easy solutions include air and freight shipping, which account for 6 percent of global emissions. Both sectors expect increased business and therefore more emissions.

The authors also anticipate the need for a more efficient means to generating and transmitting electricity. That will be complicated with the numerous options for renewable resources, including wind and solar power.

“Taken together these ‘tough-nut’ sources account for a substantial fraction of global emissions,” Caldeira said.  “To effectively address them, we will need to develop new processes and systems. This will require both development of new technologies and coordination and integration across industries.”

Scaling up existing technologies and industries will be costly, but the research paper recommends hydrogen and ammonia fuels, biofuels and synthetic hydrocarbons and direct solar fuels. They also looked at new furnace technologies in the manufacture of concrete and steel, and tools to capture and safely store hydrocarbon emissions.

All of this will be necessary to overcome the “inertia of existing systems and policies to create something new and better.”

Caldeira said, “We don’t have a crystal ball to foresee what technologies will exist a century from now, but we know that people will want buildings, transportation, and other energy services and we can try to design our energy system so that it is able to take advantage of new inventions as they come along.”

 

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